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An Unlikely Ascent from Ex-Con to Artist

David Weinberg

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Artist, actor and ex-con Epi Lopez
(David Weinberg)
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Eppiphonio "Epi" Lopez is having his first-ever art show this weekend at the Sidearm Gallery in New Orleans. But Lopez didn't hone his skills in art school -- he did it in prison. He was convicted of hauling 400 pounds of marijuana from Mexico to Louisiana.

At nearly six feet and over 300 pounds, with a shaved head and a goatee, Epi would fit the image of Mexican drug smuggler perfectly if it weren't for one thing: The old lady reading glasses that he wears. He blames his poor eyesight on years of trying to draw at night in prison.

"One time I was drawing, sitting on my rack -- 'rack' is your bunk, they call 'em racks -- and right in front of me, there was an area where everybody would come to fight. Thats where you fight, in the back of the dorm where the cameras won't see you. If you're a coward you don't go back there, you know?

"And this guy got hit and blood splattered -- and it splattered on my drawing. And right where the blood spilled on it, I drew little bitty flowers like they were falling from the sky, you know?"

Epi grew up in the small border town of Edinburgh, Texas.

"I was adopted by an aunt and uncle. And my uncle, coolest guy in the whole wide world, died when I was 9. So I kind of like, you know, my mother -- my adopted mother -- was very lenient, maybe. I was spoiled. I did what I wanted."

Epi says he started getting into trouble but he still managed to graduate and go to a local community college, where he studied printmaking. He was doing well, getting good grades. Then his adopted mother died.

"So I had to end up eventually having to drop out to... probate her will. By the time I probated her will and sold her house and paid all her debts? Dude, there was no money left."

Epi says he bought a pound of Mexican weed for $75 and took a bus to New Orleans, where he sold it for $1,000. He started going back-and-forth between Mexico and Louisiana.

"It just got bigger and bigger. Before you know it, I had to start using 18 wheelers and trucks or whatever, maybe a string of cars, stay in fancy hotels. It was fun. It was fun while it lasted."

Epi says he eventually went to prison on drug charges. When he was released in 2006, he got a job working as a janitor for a group of local artists who were building a theater out of a shed in their backyard. One day Epi was sweeping up, and he overheard the producers talking:

"They were talking about looking for some more performers and stuff. And they needed a Mexican, a guy to play the part of a Mexican drug dealer. And I'm like, 'Man, I should be able to play that part pretty well.' I'm so well-rehearsed, you know? So they let me try out for it, and it was great man. It was a sold-out show. I was like a local celebrity for a while -- I walk into Mimi's or the Cajun Pub and everyone is always like, 'Hey, what's goin' on?' and 'Hey, you're that guy.'"

A local gallery owner saw Epi's performance and asked to see his art. Epi's work is a collection of drawings done in pen. Each individual drawing is made up of thousands of tiny black lines with the occasional touch of red ink. Many of the drawings look like tattoos you would see in prison -- hearts with names, daggers, naked ladies... In fact, a lot of his drawings were designed as tattoos for other prisoners. But some of Epi's best work, the thing he drew most in prison, was flowers.

"'Cause they were all for women. The main source of my income in prison was making cards, you know, 'Missing you,' 'Loving you,' 'Happy birthday,' 'Thinking of you' and all that."

When Epi left prison he says his only possession was a tattered black notebook full of drawings. He pulls out his notebook and opens it up to the first drawing:

"This one here is a cross, right? But this paper is the back page of a Bible -- see how it looks aged, old? And why would they have so many blank pages in the back of the Bible? I figured, 'Hell, man, why don't I just tear them out and draw on 'em?' You know?

"And this girl here, she's sittin' on this rock. She's hot, huh? Very voluptuous. See how she's holding her head, leaning back? 'Cause she's saying 'Oh God, why don't you please let Epi out?' She's missin' me, yeah."

The originals from the notebook will go on display when the show opens. The show will be Epi's first, but it's not the first opportunity he's had to display his art. When Epi was locked up, a warden asked him to paint a mural on the wall of the prison.

"I didn't wanna draw in it. I didn't want to say why, you know? I told them I was too short -- I'm gettin' ready to leave, which was 'short' -- but I still had time to get involved in it. But I remember when I was a kid one time, maybe 17, and I had gotten drunk and thrown in jail, and the guy next to me could hear me scratching on the wall and he said, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'I'm writing my name on the wall.'

"He goes, 'Don't write your name on the wall, 'cause you'll always stay here -- your name's gonna be here, you know. It's like you bein' here, always in prison.' So, I don't know, because of that... that always stayed in my head. I never would write my name anywhere, so I actually didn't wanna do the mural for the prison because I felt that I would always stay there, in prison. And I wanted to get out."

The show will include models wearing tattoos of his designs, posed inside chalk outlines. And another of Epi's creations will also be served at the opening: "We're gonna have homemade wine, like in prison hooch. We were even thinking about buying a toilet and serving out of the toilet -- 'cause that's where you hide it in prison."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Nola Darling

    From New Orleans, damn straight, 06/06/2012

    Eps, you f'in rock!


    From HAMILTON, 04/28/2008

    good luck and god bless you. Please keep on the good side show the world that there is good in every one

    By brian jones

    From carlyle, IL, 04/20/2008

    I liked eppies story very much

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